Doctors and Friendship

My friend Daanish is every rishta aunty’s dreamboat: a newly-minted emergency room (ER) physician in New York City. I gave him the rundown on the doctor at Aga Khan University Hospital (AKUH) who was fired: “Two-time Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s sister went to the ER in Karachi. The doctor sent her sister a Facebook friend request the next day. Chinoy complained and tweeted about it. The doctor was fired. What do you think?”

“Creepy.”

“Creepy when patients message me.”

“And friend request me,” he responded in disjointed messages.

I hadn’t even thought of that. Even if you reverse the gender and the doctor-patient power equation, and place this episode in the heart of the civilization that produced Grey’s Anatomy, the very act of a stranger finding you on Facebook and trying to become your “friend” is creepy.

But would a hospital fire a doctor in response?

“If it was just an add, it’s inappropriate.  But not fireable.  Was it just a Facebook add?”

That’s the thing about this story. It feels like something is missing.

Those who are agitated by this episode should ask why AKUH terminated the doctor’s contract not why Chinoy complained about him. Chinoy was within her rights to complain. If Daanish was unnerved by friend requests from female patients in New York, then the situation is even worse when you load it with Pakistani gender norms. A woman in Pakistan who has allowed a man to give her a physical exam on medical grounds is within her rights to feel very creeped out if that exam is used as pretext for an online friendship. Even if that does not amount to harassment in the court of public opinion, it is a violation of medical ethics.

But is one episode enough to terminate an employee? Does a friend request cause such profound and irreparable damage?

People have alleged that Chinoy has influence over AKUH. She does not have family members on the board or management. Given the number of VIPs who are trafficked through Pakistan’s premier medical institution, if AKUH caved in to them so easily, we’d see medical staff being fired left and right all the time. In this instance, Chinoy is just another angry VIP that the hospital has to deal with.

I did some digging and found a few facts on social media that helped this story make infinitely more sense. I tried to get confirmation about those facts from someone in the administration at AKUH. Apart from its official statement, there is complete radio silence by AKUH in response to this scandal. But ultimately, I did confirm a few things from sources who did not want to be named because AKUH maintains an airtight privacy policy for staff and patients.

The version of events that we have hotly debated appears to have been produced by a game of telephone played over social media.

First, it seems that the doctor was suspended not fired, but we can’t know for sure. AKUH will not disclose his status on grounds of privacy; everyone who is commenting has conflicting opinions based on impressions from social media. Media reports also conflict.

Second, whatever action AKUH has taken or will take is based on more than the incident with Chinoy and her tweets. Turns out that reports on social media saying that there were other complaints against the doctor are true.

Finally, AKUH’s decisions are based on their own fact-finding triggered by complaints submitted to them against the doctor.

Those who are agitated by this episode should ask why AKUH terminated the doctor’s contract not why Chinoy complained about him. Chinoy was within her rights to complain. If a male doctor was unnerved by friend requests from female patients in New York, then the situation is even worse when you load it with Pakistani gender norms.

There are simply many internal details that the public is not privy to — and correctly so, to protect the privacy of those involved. But we know enough to see that AKUH took action against a doctor following complaints by Chinoy and others, after doing their own fact-finding. The doctor may have been suspended while an investigation takes place or AKUH investigated Chinoy’s case very quickly and decided it was the last straw. Either way, there is more to this situation than the public perceived and quickly judged.

When I posted on Facebook (yes, I have an account, no, do not add me) that I was working on this story and looking for sources, a friend commented: “I’m failing to see why people are so interested in this. What am I missing?”

I’m inclined to agree, but what is interesting about this case is the sudden, mystifying popularity of the harasser, the doctor who no one knows anything about except that he was allegedly fired for a Facebook add. The public’s instinct in such cases is not that there must be more to this story, but that the perpetrator is justified, reasonable and actually the victim.

The instinct we should have is that if a woman complains of harassment, there’s more to the story than she manages to say before the reaction makes it clear that she’s better off retreating into silence. Even Chinoy went silent after her initial complaint, even though her silence nurtured a wild version of events that celebrated the harasser. It took her several days to release a statement that mentioned, as a side note, that the doctor had not just sent a friend request but also commented on photos.

In response to this event, people have gone to extremes to defend the innocuousness of friend requests.

It’s clear that some men feel they have lost an arrow in their quiver for seeking romance in the universe of possibilities that social media presents.

Emergency rooms aside, consider this comment from debate: “Social media lesson: adding on Facebook a member of the opposite sex (or same sex if that’s what one is into), whom you don’t know or have just met briefly in real life — can be equal to taking a pass at or hitting on someone. It is the social equivalent of going up to a stranger in a bar or a coffee shop and saying hi. Facebook profiles are for friends and family, unless one chooses otherwise.”

I have 426 pending friend requests, mostly from people I don’t know. Even if a few people think twice before hitting that blue button now, I’ll be thanking Chinoy for it.

The writer is a Wilson Center Global Fellow. She tweets @NadiaNavi

This article was published in Dawn, EOS, November 5th, 2017

Image Credit.

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